Leeds Town Hall, the location for Opera North’s Ring Cycle six years ago, is now being refurbished, so a concert production of Parsifal had to take place in the similarly Victorian environment of Leeds Grand Theatre. It was a good move. The Grand bears some resemblance to the theatre in Bayreuth, where the work which Wagner entitled a Bühnenweihfestspiel (Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage) was first performed in 1882... but not like this. In Sam Brown's concert staging, a large chorus of Grail Knights appears beside the audience and fills the orchestra pit, Flowermaidens in long red dresses crowd together in the boxes and the 90-piece orchestra, conducted by Richard Farnes, occupies much of the stage. It will be interesting to see how the production adapts to other venues.

Brindley Sherratt (Gurnemanz) and Toby Spence (Parsifal)
© Clive Barda

Farnes, Music Director from 2004–2016, has long since established himself as a leading interpreter of Wagner and in this Parsifal he reminded us of his calibre from the very beginning, with a sprightly, carefully managed Prelude with its series of interlocking Leitmotifs signifying the main themes of compassion, fellowship, chastity, suffering, redemption and much else which might seep into an audience’s unconscious mind. In Act 3, the Good Friday Music could not have been more sublime, and the funeral ceremony of Titurel, former leader of the Grail Knights, with its loud bells and brass, inspired a kind of pleasurable fear.

Most of the action took place front stage and on the steps down to the pit. Costumes are fittingly symbolic, with the Grail Knights in grey hoodies, Parsifal in a white shirt and the seductress Kundry in a long blue dress. Titurel and the evil magician Klingsor have a military appearance. The theme picked out as dominant in the publicity was compassion, but it could just as well have been redemption, although this might not be fully grasped by a modern audience puzzled by the Christian iconography which Wagner appropriated. 

Katarina Karnéus (Kundry) and Derek Welton (Klingsor)
© Clive Barda

Swedish mezzo Katerina Karnéus sang Kundry wonderfully, with great emotional conviction, her voice agile, her diction particularly good. She spent much of her time either sitting or slumped on the stage, but even so her character could still be seen as the most interesting one, and a theme of sexuality might have been emphasised through her more overtly. Demonically seductive Flowermaidens (who in this production are not very erotic), a self-emasculated magician and a chaste maternal kiss between Kundry and the heroic fool Parsifal which causes him great pain could provide plenty of material for psychologists, but Wagner’s music conquers all qualms and embraces all enigmas. In the key central scene, Parsifal (Toby Spence), wearing a white shirt still stained with the blood of the swan he shot in Act 1, immediately recoils with horror from Kundry’s embraces, clutching his side. Spence sang with a charming sweetness and at times switched on a winning smile. He became credibly regal in Act 3 as the new leader of the Grail Knights.

Bass-baritone Robert Hayward’s authoritative presence and powerful voice with its distinctive vibrato provided us with a credible Amfortas, the ruler cursed with a terrible wound, and another bass-baritone, Derek Welton as his nemesis Klingsor, was perfectly cast, obviously relishing the part and using his rich voice with precision. Bass Brindley Sherratt was a terrific Gurnemanz, a veteran performer playing a veteran knight, his voice with its slightly gritty quality and an impressive clarity perfect for narration.

Opera North’s production of Wagner’s Parsifal
© Clive Barda

Christian rituals are interpreted as violently fanatical. In Act 1, the Knights plunge their left hands into Amfortas’ wound and smear their cheeks with blood in a parody of a mass, and in Act 3 they swarm forward with knotted ropes held high, pausing for an almost comic few seconds of self-flagellation, and I was not altogether surprised that an uplifted Grail did not accompany Parsifal’s transcendental gaze but instead Kundry in her blue dress as Mary holding the infant Jesus, as in a medieval painting. A cult of chastity became a cult of the Virgin, but I was not convinced. The Grail, a female symbol, should surely have been retained, but Wagner’s brilliant music, played by Opera North’s orchestra, made all puzzles subsidiary.